The Birmingham City Council has approved an agreement between the city’s police department and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that would deputize several BPD officers as customs officers for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations jurisdiction.
The agreement was approved unanimously despite tense opposition from several advocacy groups worried that it could lead to more deportations in the city and give ICE too much power.
The agreement — a continuation of a previous 3-year deal — went before the council Nov. 2 but was delayed due to councilors’ concerns that it would require the police officers involved to participate in the deportation and removal of undocumented Birmingham residents.
The memorandum of understanding between ICE and the Birmingham Police Department explicitly states that, while the Secretary of Homeland Security will be able to designate BPD officers as customs officers, “HSI is not conveying the authority to enforce administrative violations of immigration law.”
District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams, the previous chair of the council’s public safety committee, argued that the agreement was necessary to combat human and drug trafficking in the city.
“Without this task force, we do not have human trafficking enforcement in our city,” he said. “We as a city, and I speak on behalf of the police department, simply do not have the resources to investigate these types of crimes ourselves without the help of federal expertise. A lot of the crimes involve computer images and other things that we have to have a federal partner to help with.”
In the past fiscal year, the partnership — which Williams said currently consists of “a couple of undercover officers” — freed 51 adults and children from human trafficking, prosecuted the five people who had kidnapped them, arrested 102 felons and seized $4 million in illicit proceeds, drugs and guns.
“While it might be easy to give into loud voices that might be understandably upset with what is happening with ICE nationally, that’s not what this task force is about,” he said. He added that the city’s trafficking victims “predominantly don’t speak English, don’t have ties to this country, and are predominantly of Latino descent.”
Advocates Fear Handing Power to ICE
Representatives from several community groups spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, including Rita Rodriguez, the legal and policy director at Adelante Alabama Worker Center, who took issue with Williams’ characterization of the issue.
“I do not need a white man to tell me what makes my people safe and what I need,” Rodriguez said. “This (memorandum of understanding) as written cannot be passed because it does not keep us safe. It hands over too much power to ICE. … It causes our overtaxed, overstressed police officers to do ICE’s job … . If an MOU is to be entered into, it needs to be tailored and specific. It needs to say that there are just the two undercover officers and it needs to say line for line exactly what they do and exactly what they will give ICE and the federal government access to.”
“Right now, if ICE helps with an investigation, that means the federal surveillance state — Trump’s policies, Trump’s task force, Trump’s ordinances that he put into place — will be able to permeate Birmingham, and that is not what we should do,” she said.
Ana Delia Espino, the executive director of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, warned that ICE’s “negative connotations” would erode any “spirit of safety and trust” between the city’s Latino community and Birmingham police. “There’s not clarity, there’s a lot of questions that are still unanswered.”
Opponents also noted that Katrina Berger, the HSI official who approved the agreement, had overseen workplace raids that led to the arrest of 284 undocumented workers in Texas in 2019.
“As much as we are hearing that there will be no collusion between ICE and the BPD and nothing’s going to happen, we’re not waiting for (something) to happen,” said Fabio Melo, Adelante’s immigrant justice organizer. “We don’t want to wait for a family to be separated. … We’re not here saying we want criminals out there. We understand the position that you are all in here. We support that. We don’t want our community to be targeted by criminals. … But when it’s an issue that’s about us, have us at the table.”
But city officials appeared satisfied with the wording of the agreement — and some, including Woodfin and District 9 Councilor LaTonya Tate, who serves as the current chair of the council’s public safety committee, were personally aggrieved that activists had approached them at their homes Monday night to discuss the issue after meeting with council leadership earlier that day.
“I am beyond angry,” Tate said. “I made a commitment to the advocacy groups to ensure that law-abiding Latino community members are not targeted, profiled or threatened, and I said they would be heard and at the table to find help and solutions that address the sex and drug trafficking that threatens the lives of young people … . Some of you all have decided that is not enough. … Think before you act. Organizing is strategic, and sometimes we have to pipe down when we don’t want to pipe down.”
Woodfin, meanwhile, quoted a song by Tobe Nwigwe: “Try Jesus, but don’t try me.” That lyric, Melo would later note, is followed by a promise to “throw hands” — i.e., to physically fight back.
“I know that song, too,” Melo said. “As the mayor, shame on you. We’re just acting as Ms. Tate told us yesterday morning, to go out into the community and organize. We took that to heart. … Nobody was disrespectful, we knocked on the door peacefully … . We do not need the mayor to come after us, threatening us. That is not the way to go, Mr. Mayor.”
Excluding Council President Pro Tempore Crystal Smitherman, who was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, the council voted 8-0 to approve the agreement.